To understand the culture and the people of Kuwait, you first have to situate it in it’s proper historical place.  First there was the desert oasis. Then there was oil. Then there was war.

Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy, located in the Persian Gulf region. It’s a predominantly Muslim country with a population of about two million nationals, expatriates, working class (Arab-Lebanese-Omani-etc shop keepers and restaurateurs), family indentured servants, serving staff and security (restaurants, spas and clubs) and the “bottom rung” (street and bathroom cleaners, mosque attendants, lorry drivers).  The latter few groups tend to be made up of South Asian, Indonesian, or Filipino workers. You can also find semi-nomadic Bedouin camping out in the desert, selling traditional goods in the old souq (market), or camped out on blankets in front of some of the strip malls further out from the city centre.

In each category you can find women working, shopping, living.  While Kuwait is a Muslim country, it does not have modesty laws or overtly enforce segregation.  Women can work, do work, and some make a lot of money as CEOs of their own companies.  In restaurants and in movie theaters, clientele have the option of sitting in the women’s, men’s or in the mixed family section.  Mosques and prayer spaces are segregated.  There is no religious police here to tell you what to wear or when to pray.

Islam is deftly and seamlessly woven into the country’s governance policies, art and architecture, the shops, the people and the language.

The popular outfit tends to be the abaya.  Next in line comes the niqaab. Then the hijab. I’ve spoken with people who believe that the adorning of the niqaab and abaya in many Gulf States is simply tradition.  It’s not used to “oppress women” or to reflect personal piety.  Here it can be used as a status symbol.  Women draped in gorgeous silk-cotton blended gowns, adorned with Swarovsky crystals, wear heavy, expensive perfume and have perfected the art alluring eye make-up.  There are however, women who do wear the niqaab out of a perceived religious duty.

There is a lot of Western influence here.  America came and stayed after the war, and the affluent fill their lives with European designer clothes and cars.  Starbucks is everywhere (There’s one or two Second Cup locations), as are the mosques.  Modern consumerism meshed with traditional and religious culture.  This is reflected in women’s dress, and oddly enough, while modesty isn’t enforced here, revealing publications are censored.  Album artwork and newspaper fashion sections are censored with crude black marker filling in faux shirt sleeves or leggings to help maintain the modesty of the women in the pictures (I’ll try to scan an example this weekend).  Every kiss, smooch, or bloodbath (Nightmare on Elm Street) is cut out of public movie theatres, so watching a romantic comedy is absolutely ridiculous with entire scenes missing.

Women are rich, poor, abused, abuse, give charity, receive charity, work hard, fake their way through school, never see their family “back home”, live with their extended family, party hard, use other women to make money, do drugs, love other women, love several men, love God, are pious, create art, create life, cook, clean, relax in multi-million dollar spas, eat dinner 4 times a week, eat out 4 times a day, get 5 hours “off” from work a week, have 100% free time, have 70 work days for maternity, receive 2 hours off daily from work for 2 years to breastfeed, are disabled, save lives, live.

Two Arab ladies enjoy shopping at the Avenues mall.

Chatting in front of MAC

A ladies party. Primarily Indian and Pakistani expatriates in a rented Kuwaiti home.

A Filipino server takes a food order at a local falafel fast-food joint

A Niqaabi and her friend chatting over coffee and a shared brownie

Summer clothes.  Apparently girls “wear these clothes at the beach on the ‘ladies only’ days. They don’t go to swim… they go to show off their bodies.”

Men in traditional attire sit beneath a wall painting (oddly enough depicting the same attire!) in the old souq. Notice the painted woman in burqa

Women’s section in the Grand Mosque

Maids playing with their charges in the park at night.

A woman prays next to Eryn in one of the many prayer spaces found in the mall.

Inside a Bedouin tent. I’ve included it because we just didn’t see any women in the camp!